Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 35 (Part 2)

Psalm 35, continued

Verses 11-21

Verses 11-21 make up the middle portion of the Psalm, the development section that bridges the two main stanzas (vv. 1-10, discussed in the previous study, and vv. 22-28). Here, the conflict in the Psalm is developed, as the adversaries and opponents of the Psalmist are described, along with the threat they pose. We need not assume that specific historical persons are being referenced. In the Psalms, these adversaries tend to represent the wicked generally, the forces of evil that are at work in the world, oppressing the righteous, even to the point of presenting a danger of death and destruction.

It is possible to divide this section into two parts—verses 11-15 and 16-21; each of these emphasizes in different ways the threat that the wicked present to the righteous, in the person of the Psalmist, the protagonist of the composition.

Verses 11-12

“They stand up, witnesses of cruel (inte)nt,
(those) whom I do not know interrogate me;
they complete (for) me evil under (the) good,
(seek)ing the finish for my soul!”

These two couplets establish the action and purpose of the wicked in this section. They testify with cruel intent against the Psalmist, implying a judicial setting of sorts, a forum where accusations and charges are made. The noun du@ fundamentally signifies someone who repeats, in the sense of repeating something one (supposedly) has seen or heard. Here the idea is that certain people are acting as false witnesses, testifying with sm*j*, a noun that generally signifies violence, but often with a specific connotation of lawlessness and injustice. The effect of their evil testimony is to “complete” (vb <l^v*), in the sense of making a compensatory exchange, evil “under” (i.e., in place of) the good. Possibly this implies an act of betrayal against the Psalmist—i.e., while pretending to do good, their conduct is actually intended for evil.

The word lokv= in the final line can be taken for a noun meaning “childlessness”; however, I tentatively follow commentators such as J. A. Soggin and Dahood (p. 213), who would read it as a verbal noun of the root hlK in the Shaphel (causative) stem. The verb hl*K* has the basic meaning of “complete, finish”, and so makes a fitting parallel with <l^v* in the prior line. It can be used in the negative sense of “finish (someone) off”, i.e., bring a person’s life to an end, and that would seem to be the context here. In English idiom, we might translate the line as “bringing an end to my soul”.

Verse 13

“And I, in their wearing (me) down, my clothing (grew) loose,
I was pressed down (in) my soul with fasting,
and my plea turned (back) upon my (own) lap.”

The rhythm, structure, and meaning of this verse are all problematic. As it stands, it would seem to be a tricolon, with an irregular 4+3+3 meter. Moreover, the description is awkward and cumbersome, though this may be intentional, as if intending to convey poetically the wearisome burden that the protagonist feels. Faced with the oppressive actions of the wicked against him, the Psalmist responds with prayer and fasting. If the judicial setting of vv. 11-12 is retained, the “wearing down” (vb hl*j* in a causative sense) of the Psalmist may involve repeated slanderous accusations made against him.

The sense of the verb bWv (“turn [back]”) in the third line is not entirely clear. Does the “turning back” of the Psalmist’s petition indicate something positive or negative? The latter would seem more appropriate in the overall context of the tricolon—that is, even though the protagonist brings himself low with prayer and fasting, his plea (to God) seems to come back unanswered (cf. verse 17a, below).

Verse 14

“As (though for) a companion (or) a brother to me,
did I walk about, (yes even) as one mourning (his) mother,
going dark (with mourning), I bent myself (down low)!”

Another difficult verse. Presumably it is another tricolon, building upon that of verse 13; however, if the sense of the last line in v. 13 is positive, then conceivably it would be paired with the first line here in v. 14. In that case, vv. 13-14 would be comprised of 3 couplets rather than 2 tricola, and the middle couplet would be an expression of comfort and hope:

“and my prayer turned back upon my lap,
like a companion or a brother to me”

The overall sense of these verses, however, is one of suffering and an expression of grief and despair by the Psalmist. Thus, on this basis, the division into a pair of triplets (tricola) seems more appropriate. His efforts to change his circumstances (through prayer and fasting) having failed, the protagonist now responds like one who is in mourning. In v. 13, his clothing was loose and coarse, but now he goes about in dark/black garments (vb rd^q*), as if in mourning for a dear friend or family member. I take the references to a “companion” and “brother” in the first line as connected to the act of mourning in the second line. They are likewise objects of the verb, even though they are mentioned prior—a technique which builds suspense and is used for dramatic effect. In more conventional syntax, we might have instead worded it, “I walked about like (I was) mourning a companion, or my brother, or (even) my mother”.

Verse 15

“And, in my limping, they took joy and gathered,
they gathered (as one)s striking against me;
(the ones) I do not know tore away (at me),
and did not cease in acting false (with) me.”

With some reluctance, I have followed Dahood (p. 214) in including the first word of v. 16 (ypnjb) as part of the final line of v. 15. This results in a rhythmically consistent pair of 3-beat (3+3) couplets here in v. 15, and preserves the parallelism in the second couplet. The suffering and grief of the Psalmist only goads the wicked to further malice. With evil delight (vb jm^c*), they gather together around the Psalmist—the doubling of the verb Wpsan (“they gathered”) serves to emphasize this aspect of their behavior. The sense is that they surround him, taunting him in a manner that becomes increasingly hostile and violent. The verb [n~j* has the basic meaning of “be/act false”, and so echoes the idea of the wicked as ‘false’ witnesses who slander the protagonist (cf. on vv. 11-12 above). It also connotes both immorality (corruption) and betrayal, and continues the motif of ruthless/lawless behavior expressed by the word sm*j* at the opening of this section.

The phrase yT!u=d^y` al) (“I do not know”) is also repeated from verse 11, and so characterizes the wicked again as strangers, i.e. ones whom the Psalmist does not know. It seems likely that this emphasis actually reflects a sense of betrayal—his opponents may indeed have been known to him, but their cruel behavior shows that he did not realize their true nature until now.

Verse 16

“(The one)s mocking in a circle grind their teeth at me.”

This single 4-beat line opens the second part of the section, and continues the motif-setting from v. 15—of a circle of hostile, taunting adversaries surrounding the Psalmist. The basic meaning of the word goum* would seem to be something that has a curved or circular shape. The construct expression goum* yg@u&l^ (“mockers of a circle,” i.e., ones mocking in a circle) is difficult to translate literally; nor can the alliteration of the expression (la±¦gê m¹±ôg) be captured in English.

Verse 17

“My Lord, to what (end) do you see (this)?
Turn away my soul from (the one)s <giving roar>,
my only (life) from the (shaggy) lions!”

The scenario of the wicked surrounding the Psalmist leads to a despairing plea. The use of the common verb ha*r* (“see”) in the first line must be understood in the specific sense of “see (this), and yet do not respond.” The prepositional particle hm*K* (“for what”, i.e. for what reason/purpose) can have the force of “how long?”, adding to the sense of despair. Following the suggestion of Kraus (p. 391, and other commentators), I have reluctantly chosen to emend the MT <h#ya@V)m! (“from their destructions”) to <yg]a&V)m! (“from [the one]s roaring”). The Masoretic reading is awkward, but not impossible in context (viz., “from their destructive [act]s”); however, this emendation has the decided advantage of preserving a strong and clear parallelism in the final two lines. The term ryp!K= is one of several referring to a lion—in this case, to a vigorous young (male), possibly related to the idea of being covered (rpk I) with hair (i.e., a shaggy mane).

Verse 18

“(Then) I will throw you (praise) in (the) great assembly,
among (the) throng (of) people I will shout (praise to) you.”

The Psalmist promises to give a formal (public) account of what YHWH has done for him, extolling it in praise, if, indeed, God will deliver him from his wicked adversaries.

Verse 19

“They must not rejoice at me, (the) deceitful (one)s hostile to me;
(the one)s hating me for no (purpose), may they squeeze (their) eye(s shut)!”

The precise meaning of this couplet is difficult to determine. The sense seems to be of the Psalmist making an appeal to YHWH that the wicked not be allowed to exult in the suffering of the righteous. The imperfect verb forms have jussive (imperative) force; essentially God is being called on to act. The contrast is between a joyous demeanor (vb jm^c*), and an angry, frustrated expression, indicated by the idiom “squeeze [vb Jr^q*] the eye(s)”. The Psalmist calls on YHWH to frustrate the wicked, so that they are not able effectively to act out their hostility/hatred toward the righteous.

The word <N*j! poses certain difficulties in context here. I have followed the typical rendering that derives it (as an adverb) from the root /nj (I), “to show favor, do (a) favor”, in the negative sense of doing something “for no good (reason)”. However, Dahood (p. 214f) would derive it from a separate root /nj (II/III) meaning “act stealthily” (cf. the previous study on v. 7).

Verse 20

“For they do not speak (a message of) peace,
but (are) about stirring (up trouble) in (the) land,
(and so) they devise words of treachery.”

Here is an example where the semantic range of the root <l^v* (and the noun <olv*) are difficult to render clearly in English. I have opted for the typical translation of <olv* as “peace”, but I believe that the primary idea here is properly related to the context of the covenant, and of (God’s people) fulfilling the terms of the agreement—which includes acting in such a way so as to promote peace throughout the land. The noun hm*r=m! conveys just the opposite: deceit, treachery, and a violation of the covenant bond. The wicked may appear to be devout and faithful on the surface, but in reality their hearts and minds are set against the bond with YHWH.

The root ugr in the second line has an interesting range of meaning which creates a parallel with <lv in line 1. While the verb ug~r* can denote rest and repose (i.e., peace), it can also indicate the opposite—i.e., stirring and unrest. Possibly the linguistic evidence is the result of two separate roots being conflated, but that is uncertain (cf. Dahood’s analysis, p. 215, and previously on Ps 30:6). Here, the antithetic meaning is clearly in view, i.e. “stirring (up trouble)”. Similarly, “words [<yr!b*D=] of treachery” is contrasted with “speaking [vb rb^D*] peace” in line 1.

Verse 21

“And they open wide their mouth against me,
(and) say: ‘Ha, ha! our eyes have seen (it)!'”

While the behavior of the wicked is described broadly, and variously, throughout vv. 11-21, the main focus is that which was introduced at the start of the section (cf. on vv. 11-12, above)—namely, that of adversaries of the Psalmist giving false and slanderous testimony against him. This is restated here in a rather blunt and coarse manner, capturing the sense of taunting that was emphasized in the following verses 13ff. What do the Psalmist’s opponents claim to have seen? This is not specified; most likely, it would imply either a supposed religious transgression or ethical crime. In any case, the detail is more or less irrelevant; the main point is the way that the wicked are willing to slander and impugn the character of the righteous. This basic motif played a role, famously, in the Synoptic Passion narrative of the interrogation of Jesus (Mk 14:56ff), and is the sort of thing that many good and faithful believers are apt to have experienced, in different ways and in varying degrees, from time to time.

References marked “Dahood” above are to Mitchell Dahood, S.J., Psalms I: 1-50, Anchor Bible [AB] vol 16 (1965).
References marked “Kraus” are to Hans-Joachim Kraus, Psalmen, 1. Teilband, Psalmen 1-59, 5th ed., Biblischer Kommentar series (Neukirchener Verlag: 1978); English translation in Psalms 1-59, A Continental Commentary (Fortress Press: 1993).

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